In a speech before Catholic bishops, the Democratic FCC commissioner says she fears the Sinclair-Tribune merger will “do harm to the time-tested principles of diversity, localism and competition.” Because ATSC 3.0 signals are incompatible with TV receivers now in use, she says, the new standard will force consumers to buy new sets. “It’s a tax on every household with a television.” NAB counters that the commissioner “misunderstands” the standard.
Don’t count on FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to vote to approve Sinclair’s $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media later this year or early next.
In a speech today before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Democratic commissioner expressed deep reservations about the deal.
For decades, she said, Congress and the FCC have maintained limits on broadcast station ownership to sustain media diversity, localism and competition.
“I fear we are on the cusp of dismantling those values. I am concerned the commission is gearing up to approve a transaction that will hand a single broadcast company [Sinclair] the unprecedented ability to reach more than 70% of American households.
“I’m not alone in my concerns about the concentration that will result from this proposed transaction. I’m not alone in my fear that it will do harm to the time-tested principles of diversity, localism and competition.
“There is opposition across the political spectrum. In fact, I can’t put it better than the Newsmax Group, which has warned that a ‘a free and diverse press, a bedrock principle of American democracy,’ will be irreparably harmed by this merger.”
Rosenworcel said the FCC Republican majority led by Chairman Ajit Pai has paved the way for approving the merger by restoring the so-called UHF discount that eases the national station ownership cap and continuing to permit joint sales agreement that allow broadcaster to circumvent national and local limits.
Both steps helped speed the way for this transaction,” she said. “The bottom line is we are not going to remedy what ails our media with a rush of new consolidation. We are not going to fix our inability to ferret fact from fiction by doubling down on a single company owning ever more of our public airwaves.”
Rocenworcel also raised concerns about the FCC’s plans to authorize stations this fall to broadcast using the new ATSC 3.0 standard without sufficient protections for consumers.
“There is a lot to be excited about with this new standard — ultra high definition picture quality and immersive audio, advanced emergency alerts and innovative interactive services. But I fear the agency is about to rush this standard to market without understanding the consequences for consumers.
“This new standard is not backwards-compatible with current television devices. In the near term, with the standard voluntary, the cost of implementing it will be added to consumer cable and satellite bills. In the longer term, it means everyone will need to buy a new television set.
“This is not a great boon for consumers; it’s a tax on every household with a television. So, it’s time for the commission to go back to the drawing board and find a way to smooth the transition to this new standard in a way that better serves the public interest.”
Rosenworcel’s comments did not sit well with the NAB, one of the lead proponents of the new standard. “Unfortunately, Commissioner Rosenworcel misunderstands the goals and asks of broadcasters,” said NAB EVP Dennis Wharton. “We simply want to compete on equal footing with national wireless and pay TV providers who routinely upgrade services in the telecom ecosystem.
“NextGen TV will allow local TV stations – including our public TV brethren – the ability to offer ultra HDTV programming, emergency alerts that save lives, and live TV on mobile devices. This will be a free and local programming innovation that the FCC routinely supports, and that tens of millions of consumers will enjoy.”